I was saddened to learn of the death of Paula Fox. I did not know her, though I much admired her work. I once had an occasion to sit down with just her for a lunch. We talked about this and that, mostly about her work, and writing. She said something to me that I have always remembered, and have passed on to others, even as I tried to practice it. Perhaps it was what she said to others, but I had never heard it before. She said, “The writer’s job is to imagine the truth.”
“The writer’s job is to imagine the truth.“
I just handed in a new book to my editor Richard Jackson. When published, it will be the twenty-second book I have worked on with him. The books he edited include The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing but the Truth, Poppy, The Man who was Poe—among the books for which I am best known. Other writers will tell you the same. If you match his name with the big awards in the children’s book world, he has been associated with more winners than any other editor.
What is he like to work with? I can only tell you how he works with me, because one aspect of his editorial skill is that he works differently with different writers. That is to say, he is keenly tuned into the writing style and personality of the many different people with whom he works. I have no idea how he worked with Paula Fox, Garry Paulson, or Judy Blume, to name three very different writers with whom he has worked. There is something of the chameleon in him—in a positive way. I once asked him how he would like to be in a room full of his writers. He visibly winced.
He has always edited many, many books, but whenever I spoke to him, he was instantly there, in my project, as if he had nothing else to do, or needed to think about other text than that project. Many a time, when I thought a book was done, he would call and say, “I’ve been thinking…” and what he has thought about was something missing and vital to the book.
His instincts are very sharp, and indeed, he’s a very smart, an intelligent person, who grasps what the writer intends, and then some. He knows literature. He sees what the writer can do. He will ask questions, not tell you what to do, though he has never ducked marking up a manuscript. Inevitably the writer—this writer anyway—in the process comes to understand an aspect of the work not fully understood before. His line editing is of the same high order, cutting away the chaff, bringing forth the intent.
When we have talked about books in process I always came away energized with a new sense of clarity, of being challenged. And it must be said we talk about other things other than the current book. We share certain interests—theatre, for example—and our talks are punctuated by a lot of laughter. It is fun for me to talk to him, a much loved and admired friend, a colleague, without doubt fundamental to my life as a writer.
The most amazing thing about him, is that I know there are many other writers who can say the same thing.
It was a very difficult book to write, in part, because I had lived some of those secrets when I was a boy. Moreover, I lived on the edge of a world that told me again and again, “Don’t ask about those secrets.” “If you know the secrets, don’t tell anyone about them.” “Don’t even talk about them on the phone. Someone might be listening.”
And here I was, writing about those secrets. Shouting them out, so to speak, in this book.
It made it a hard book to write.
Years ago, in another of my novels, The Man who was Poe, I have Poe saying, “Writers write best about what they know, and what they know best are their own fears.”
I suspect, however, revealing secrets can bring about good writing. Still, it is perfectly understandable that one would not want to share such things with the world. And yet, that which is true—as Hemingway might have said—is the most powerful thing a writer can write about.
So what do you do?
You tell the truth. And then you do what Paula Fox once said to me, “The writer’s job is to imagine the truth.”
In short, the best fiction is true.
The most difficult aspect of Sophia’s War is the commingling of fact and fiction. The story of Benedict Arnold’s treason, and John André’s fate, is not just well known, it has been researched and detailed to an extraordinary degree. One of the books I used to research the event provided photographs and descriptions of everywhere André went during that extraordinary moment—virtually step by step. Moreover, my attempt to describe New York City during the British occupation (1776-7183) is based on detailed research that has been done by others. It is all as “correct” as I could write it.
But Sophia herself, and her story, is very much fiction. How can the two connect? It is because as the historians of the events record, there are two key moments in the Arnold/André saga that have never been satisfactorily illuminated. Historians speak of “luck,” “fate,” and “coincidence.” Perhaps. But it is just at those points that I have been able to create a character, motive, and means, for these mysterious events to be explained. Not the least of what makes it all work is that Sophia does not want to be noticed, is not noticed, and indeed, cannot be noticed in the context of who and what she is—an independent young woman. It’s very much like that wonderful book title, Anonymous Was a Woman.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said (if I have it right) “History is biography.” Sophia’s War is Sophia’s autobiography. Just don’t look for her in history books. You can only find her here. “The writer’s task,” as I once heard Paula Fox say, “is to imagine the truth.”